PRINT September 2006

International News

Manifesta 6

BY THE TIME you read this, the convoluted legal battles being waged this summer over the abrupt cancellation of Manifesta 6—which was scheduled to open in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, on September 23—may very well have been settled. Yet even if cooler heads prevail in a pair of court proceedings going on at the time of this writing, the baroque trajectory of the story so far suggests that no matter the resolution, it is unlikely to produce a definitive account of just why the plug was pulled on the 2006 installment of the celebrated itinerant biennial.

Not that there’s been a lack of information available about the rancorous divorce; the manifold disagreements between the Manifesta organization and officials in Nicosia have been widely reported. But despite the welter of “we said/they said” public statements discussed in the European press and on the Internet, it remains difficult to parse precisely what happened. The basic timeline, however, is clear. Nicosia was chosen, over other applicants including the Estonian capital of Tallinn and a two-city group of Dublin and Belfast, as the host in May 2004 by the International Foundation Manifesta (IFM). The city, Europe’s only remaining “divided” capital—controlled, on either side of a United Nations–patrolled Green Line, by Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot forces—was singled out by the IFM for its “capacity to serve as a starting point in guiding Manifesta through a two-year period of investigation around the geographical and conceptual frameworks of Europe at large, [in] particular with regard [to] its relationship to the Middle East and North Africa” and its ability to “serve as a microcosm for critical reinterpretation of the complex colonial and post-colonial history of Europe as played out within this broader territory of contingency.”

In February 2005 the IFM announced the international curatorial team for Manifesta 6: Cairo-based independent curator Mai Abu ElDahab; Russian-born, New York–based artist Anton Vidokle; and Florian Waldvogel, currently a curator at Witte de With in Rotterdam. Discarding the usual exhibition format, the curators instead proposed the creation of an experimental art academy, in the tradition of the Black Mountain School. The three-part school—each “department” of which was to be conceived and operated by an individual curator—would function across the city, with activities located in both parts of Nicosia; underlining this goal, a January 2006 conference on the upcoming biennial included a session held in the Turkish sector. Then, on June 1 of this year—less than four months before the biennial was to start—the three curators were dismissed by Nicosia for Art (NFA), the quasi-municipal organization set up as the IFM’s local partner. The reason, according to an official statement by the mayor of Nicosia, Michael Zampelas: “Recently and contrary to the original concept of the Manifesta 6 programme, the curatorial team insisted on the establishment and operation of an essential part of the Manifesta 6 school in the occupied part of Nicosia.”

The decision to produce a Manifesta in Nicosia brought with it unique challenges, given the complex sociopolitical context of Cyprus, an island nation located in the eastern Mediterranean roughly fifty miles south of Turkey. A rich culture situated at the nexus of Europe and Asia that hosted successive waves of occupiers over its nearly six millennia of recorded habitation—including Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, and Romans as well as the ancient Greeks and the Ottoman Empire—modern-day Cyprus gained its independence from Britain in 1960. Tensions between its Greek Cypriot majority and the minority Turkish Cypriot community caused violent unrest in the 1960s, even after the arrival of United Nations peacekeepers in 1964. A decade later Greece’s military government sponsored a coup to gain control of the island, and in response Turkish troops invaded the north. Since then the country (and its capital) have been divided into a southern Greek and a northern Turkish zone, but the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey. After decades of uneasy coexistence, a much-touted UN-sponsored attempt was made to reunify the country in the run-up to Cyprus’s entrance into the European Union, but the plan was defeated by Greek Cypriot voters in a 2004 referendum.

With this historical context apparently firmly in mind from the beginning, the IFM, its curators, and the local municipal officials coordinating the project stressed the idea of “bi-communality” as a cornerstone. Yet it was precisely the attempts to practically implement this conceptual notion that caused Manifesta to unravel. “We entered the situation two years ago with a very clear agreement; there was never any controversy about it in the beginning,” says Vidokle, who proposed that his department be located in the north of the city. “We were always under the impression that the biennial would take place in the entire city of Nicosia, in both Turkish and Greek parts. It was also written into our contract—the first thing that happened when we were appointed curators of Manifesta, when we first came to Cyprus, [was that] we were immediately taken to the Turkish side, I think on the second or third day of our trip. And for about a year and a half there were really no questions about that. We did a conference there; I did a talk about my part of the project there. And then suddenly this winter everything started changing really rapidly.”

NFA and Yiannis Toumazis, director of the Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre and the local coordinator for the show, declined requests to be interviewed for this article. Their position, as outlined in previous press interviews and official statements, is that the idea of locating part of the school physically in the Turkish quarter was sprung on them late in the game and contrary to original agreements, an assertion adamantly disputed by Vidokle, who notes that initial research into the concept began, with NFA’s knowledge and cooperation, in the summer of 2005. NFA further claimed that the proposal went beyond cultural bi-communality and raised legal problems that simply made it impossible to realize—citing, among other things, the issue of access for Greek Cypriots who, to attend the school, would have had to produce identification at checkpoints manned by representatives of a state they do not recognize as legitimate. It seems likely that while the concept of bi-communality at first appealed to the municipality, the physical manifestation of it spooked the local powers that be. The well-attended January 2006 conference in northern Nicosia lent momentum to Vidokle’s plan to place his department headquarters there, and at this point the political implications of such a move must have suddenly struck home.

After months of fruitless attempts to find a negotiated solution in the spring—talks that the curators say also addressed disagreements over financial disbursements, the issuance of work permits and visas (which ElDahab, for instance, never received), and a general breakdown of communication between the Manifesta organizers and their local liaisons—the curators were informed by letter that their contracts had been terminated and the event, to which the Nicosian and federal Cypriot governments had pledged 1 million euros ($1.3 million), summarily canceled. The termination letter, excerpts of which were published in Nicosia’s English-language Cyprus Mail newspaper, threatened the curators with “legal measures” should there be “any unauthorized use . . . of any information, materials and documents that pertain to the Manifesta 6 project.” Shortly thereafter, Cypriot officials filed suit against the IFM and the curators individually, charging breach of contract; meanwhile, the IFM (which is based in Amsterdam) countersued in Dutch court in an attempt, says executive director Hedwig Fijen, to release a hold placed on its bank accounts by lawyers for the Nicosian municipality. None of the cases had been resolved at the time of this writing, leaving the IFM in a kind of fiscal limbo and the curatorial staff not only unpaid and without professional access to more than eighteen months of work but also facing demands for damages from NFA of more than 400,000 euros ($500,000) each.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems fair to say that there were misunderstandings of message and intent on both sides—of certain nuances of the local context by the international team; of the scope, seriousness, and potential real-world implications of what perhaps at first seemed a relatively anodyne “cultural event” by local officials. The Cyprus authorities no doubt imagined when they first applied to host Manifesta that it would be a showcase for hard-won political rapprochement as their country settled in as a new member of the EU; instead, it became an international incident that highlighted precisely the kinds of tensions they had hoped they’d be putting behind them. (Because the Nicosian representatives are now silent, questions about their specific rationale, their professionalism, and their goodwill must for the time being remain the stuff of speculation.)

As for the IFM, Fijen calls the affair “a very traumatic experience” and says she welcomes “time off for a couple of months to reanalyze what this means for a roving biennial such as Manifesta, what this means for individual curators, and what this means for the relationship between art and politics”—all important questions for an organization that clearly entered the Cyprus project with every good intention but was just as clearly caught out when things turned sour. Martha Rosler, who was to be an adviser in Vidokle’s department at the Manifesta 6 School, lamented the cancellation of the project, describing a feeling of being “blindsided.” But she does not question the wisdom of trying to do cultural work in such a difficult sociopolitical environment in the first place: “One can always say that people were naive, but on the other hand, to stick to only safe situations is idiotic. I wouldn’t say this was physically unsafe, but in terms of [Manifesta] sticking their toe in waters in which the UN had already gotten itself swamped, it was a little bit daring perhaps. But I don’t know how to fault them for this—I think that’s sniping from a safe perch.” Faultfinding aside, the saga of Manifesta 6 does raise intriguing questions for contemporary curatorial practice—about the nature and scope of temporary exhibitions mounted in complex local contexts via collaborations between native and international groups; about the risks and rewards of exhibition concepts that have dramatic, high-profile public components; about the functioning of multiperson (and multistrategy) curatorial teams. And it also highlights the challenges of navigating the increasingly fluid definitions of what exactly a curator is, as traditional behind-the-scenes administrative models give way to more front-and-center modes that are often almost inseparable from what would normally be thought of as “artistic” practices.

Meanwhile, as the foundation, the curators, and the participating artists ponder such Big Questions, the date approaches for what would have been Manifesta 6’s opening with virtually nothing left to show after a year and a half of work. The one exception is Notes for an Art School, the first of what were to be a series of books published under the auspices of the Manifesta 6 School, which remains available as a PDF online. Featuring a mix of essays and statements on the relationship between education, curating, and art practice by the organizers and several participants, including Liam Gillick, Julie Ault and Martin Beck, Boris Groys, Walid Sadek, and Jan Verwoert, the intriguing collection opens with a framing essay by curator ElDahab. Its ambivalent title, which at the time probably seemed primarily a rhetorical provocation, now reads as uncannily, and sadly, prescient: “On How to Fall With Grace—or Fall Flat on Your Face.”

Jeffrey Kastner is a frequent contributor to Artforum.